Cuba is a paradoxical country. It seems that the island stopped in time back in the 1950s, but at the same time it is constantly changing, especially in recent months, after the rapprochement with the United States. However, since the election of Donald Trump, the contemporary relations are getting more tense again. Before traveling to the island in September 2015, I did a lot of research and asked friends who had visited the country just a little bit earlier. When we got there many things were already different from what they had told me. So, to make it easier to travel to Cuba for the first time, I made a list of things you should know before you go.
1- Brazilians need a visa to visit Cuba, which you can get at the boarding airport (Brazil or, in our case, Mexico), which costs US $ 20 per person, or upon arrival at the airport in Cuba. In this case, it costs US$ 25. If you are issuing the visa at the departure airport, it is ideal to have the correct amount of the payment in US dollars, as some countries do not give change or give you a bad exchange rate.
Germans need a visa for Cuba (30 days, a “tourist card”) which you need before entering Cuba, either applying for it at the Cuban embassy in Germany or some airlines offer you to get a visa directly at the airport. Depending how you apply for your visa, you will pay between 25 to 35,00 €.
2- The currency used by foreigners in Cuba is CUC (Cuban Convertible Pesos), which is always the equivalent of US$ 1. To get a better exchange rate, the ideal is to take Euros, because despite Cuba’s rapprochement with the United States, the US dollar continues to be taxed at 10 %.
3 – We visited Cuba in September 2015 and it was just after they started to allow tourists to withdraw money from the ATMs with a foreign card. We found ATMs in several cities that we visited and got money there. But the ideal way would be not to count on it and travel with cash. There are still very few establishments that accept credit or debit card payments.
4- The most economical and, in my opinion, the most interesting way to stay in Cuba is in the private homes. These are homes of Cubans who are regulated by the government to receive tourists. These accommodations are simple but comfortable. One of the requirements is that the rooms are suites. Prices range from $ 20 to $ 30 a day per couple, depending on the city. For me, the highlight of this type of lodging is that it facilitates contact with Cubans.
5- In Havana, most of the old cars function as collective taxis. Just wave your hand and wait for one to stop, then tell them your destination and ask if the driver is going the same way. The ticket costs 0,50 CUC per person. If the driver charges more, negotiate.
6- The best way to experience Cuban cuisine is to go to a “paladar”, restaurants frequented by locals. In general, prices are charged in CUP (Cuban Pesos), currency used by residents, but they accept CUC. Do not be surprised if you see on the menu that a meal costs 30, for example. In fact, it is little more than 1 CUC. The typical Cuban dish usually includes rice, beans, avocado, salad and meat.
7- To travel around the country, you can go by bus, which leave from the bus terminals, or you can rent a car. In general, the price of cars is almost the same as the bus fare per person, multiplied by four, which is the maximum capacity. If you choose to rent a car, check the cars conditions very carefully, as a lot of them break down during the trip. It also can take a few hours that the car will be full with all four passengers, otherwise you might end up paying for the entire car by yourself.
8- There is already Wi-Fi on the streets of the main Cuban cities, but it isn’t free yet. It’s still a novelty of recent months. I made a post explaining how the Wi-Fi system works in Cuba.
9- In Cuba it is very difficult to buy anything other than handicrafts. There are hardly any markets or shops. In addition, several products are practically nonexistent on the island or are missing for a while. When we were there, even buying water in a bottle was difficult for a few days. So, bring with you whatever you need like shower stuff, sunscreen …
10- In Cuba, people have the basics of everything: food, housing, education, health, but most of them have to be content with just the basics. And a simple soap can be something super special. In the ten days we were in Cuba, practically nobody asked us for money to buy food, but I lost count of how many times we were asked for soap.
11- In general, Cuba is a very safe country. It is possible to travel the country with tranquility, to walk the streets without fear until it gets dark. Also, you don’t see anybody on the streets using drugs. But it is good to be careful as they might mess around with tourists as in general, they are only “inflating” the prices of products and services. If you are staying in a private house, always ask first the owner for the prices of things and services to get an idea.
Written in Portuguese by Karla Larissa
Translation by Juliane Boll